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Under debt is meant colloquially liabilities associated with repayment obligations of natural or legal persons against creditors are connected.


The owner of debt is called the debtor . All economic subjects can have debts , i.e. private households , companies or the state with its subdivisions (the public sector with its public budgets , public companies , social insurance ). The negative connotation of “debt” with “debt” exists only in German usage. The English term “debt” has just as little the negative connotation of English guilt as the French equivalent “dette” of French culpabilité . The English, French or Italian terms are to be translated as “shall”, because they come from the Latin debere for “shall”. The negatively burdened term debt is used colloquially, but also in law, as a counterpart to assets . Particularly in a period of high interest rates and / or periods of economic downturn, debts can grow into a debt burden, a mountain of debt and ultimately into an uncontrollable debt trap.

Word origin

The word debt is the plural of guilt, but both have different meanings. Guilt also includes ethical , criminal or civil aspects, while debt is limited to liabilities. The verb “owe” is derived from the noun debt. Already around 160 AD , the Roman legal expert Gaius separated the law into persons ( Latin personae ), things ( Latin res ) and claims ( Latin actiones ) in his Institutiones , the latter consisting of slaves ( Latin servi ) and debts ( Latin obligationes ).

The German dictionary of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm from 1838 traces the word debt back to the Germanic verb “skulan” for “shall”. According to this origin, guilt initially describes something “what one should, an obligation in general”. It came as a verbal abstract from the ancient Germanic “skula” for “obliged, to be guilty; should, must, committed to a performance ”. The Old High German "skuld" ("scult") has been attested since the year 765 and meant "debt". In Middle High German , the “schult” was based on the Latin debitum as an obligation to pay money .

In 1763 Immanuel Kant called the debts "negative capital" because they were "positive reasons for reducing capital". In 1840, the German crown syndic Friedrich Carl von Savigny saw “debts as a component of property”, but then declared property to be the “sum of rights that remain for the owner after deduction of debts”. By that he meant the net worth .

Many compound nouns contain debt as part of a word. The debt service is made up of loan interest and repayment together a debt brake to an unlimited debt growth of government debt prevent unfavorable school thinking numbers can lead to a debt crisis lead, an excessively high government debt ratio is a debt relief also be impaired. Under debt is meant over a longer period intensifying process of debt growth in a business entity or the existing absolute level of debt to the balance sheet date .

Debt service

As debt service ( debt service ) is the contractual payments of interest and principal designated by the debtor. The debt service burden than spending the liquidity and may therefore only a small part of its depending on the type of borrower revenue account. High debt also triggers high debt servicing and increases the financial risk of liquidity shortages. When looking at success, it looks similar: Interest represents expense for the debtor that reduces profits or increases losses , so that high debts can also result in income risks. These factors affect debt sustainability.

Debt sustainability

In economic terms, it depends on whether and to what extent a debtor is able to bear his debts plus interest without his existence being endangered (e.g. through bankruptcy ). To determine this, the amount of debts is compared to assets or the income that can be achieved over the long term. The idea behind this is that the assets form the basis for creditors to grant creditors and that the debtor's income allows statements to be made about his debt servicing ability. For this purpose, debt ratios were developed which are used as indicators depending on the type of debtor ( government , company , private household ). The debt ratio refers to economic key figures that form indicators for the sustainability of debts and are intended to enable statements about the creditworthiness of debtors.

The debt duration (better: debt relief duration ) is such a key figure and indicates how long a debtor needs to be able to completely reduce the existing debt on the basis of his permanently achievable income. In the case of the state, the permanently achievable income is made up of the export revenues , in the case of companies the freely available cash flow is used, while for private individuals their net income is used as a basis. The key figure indicates how long a state needs to pay off debt with the export revenues it has achieved or how long a company needs to become debt-free with the help of the freely available cash flow. Accordingly, a long debt duration is an unfavorable indicator for creditors when assessing a debtor.

Legal position

The law assumes that wealth forms the basis of debt. It is irrelevant for what reason debts arose.

civil right

The BGB is based on the principle that the debts have at least equal assets . In the vast majority of cases, it understands assets only to be assets ; debts are neither viewed as components of assets, nor are the rights remaining after deduction of debts referred to as such. The BGB speaks of both debts and liabilities. Debts are mentioned when a service is offset against several claims ( Section 366 (2) BGB), in the case of the GbR with regard to the distribution of joint debts ( Section 733 ff. BGB) and in the case of estate liabilities ( Section 1967 BGB); it sets debts equal with liabilities. Since the entire assets are transferred to the heirs ( § 1922 Paragraph 1 BGB means debts by assets), they are also liable for the debts according to § 1967 Paragraph 1 BGB (here called “estate liabilities”). As initial assets, it understands the assets of a spouse after deduction of liabilities, i.e. the net assets ( § 1374 Abs. 1 BGB).

Commercial law

The term debt appears most frequently in commercial law . In terms of commercial and accounting law, the term debts includes liabilities and provisions within the meaning of Section 249, Paragraph 1, Clause 1 of the German Commercial Code (provisions for uncertain liabilities and impending losses from pending transactions).

In terms of inventory , according to Section 240 (1) of the German Commercial Code (HGB), every merchant must precisely record his property , his claims and debts, the amount of his cash as well as his other assets and indicate the value of the individual assets and debts. According to Section 242, Paragraph 1 of the German Commercial Code (HGB), the merchant has to draw up annual financial statements for the end of each financial year that show the relationship between his assets and his debts . The financial statements, pursuant to § 246 para. 1 HGB all assets, liabilities, prepaid expenses and expenses and income to contain. It is expressly required that the debt be included in the debtor's balance sheet . In this balance sheet, in accordance with Section 247 (1) of the German Commercial Code, fixed and current assets , equity , debts and prepaid expenses must be shown separately and broken down sufficiently. According to Section 252, Paragraph 1, No. 4 of the German Commercial Code (HGB), the assets and liabilities are to be assessed individually on the balance sheet date .

The classification rule of Section 266 (3) B and C HGB, in turn, deals with the disclosure of provisions and liabilities in corporations and legal forms equivalent to these . Their valuation takes place according to § 253 Paragraph 1 and 2 HGB with their (estimated) settlement amount .

Debts can be accounted for if they represent an existing burden on the assets or if they are sufficiently certain to be expected, are a legal or economic obligation of the accounting company and can be assessed independently. According to the requirement of completeness in Section 247 (1) of the German Commercial Code, equity, debts and deferred income are to be shown on the liabilities side of the balance sheet. From a formal point of view, debts are all liabilities that are neither equity nor deferred income.


The case law also uses the term debt. The BGH has decided that telephone providers may only block a cell phone connection if the customer owes them at least 75 euros. In the case of profit compensation , maintenance debts, like all debts, may be deducted from the final assets; If the debtor had already paid the maintenance, the final assets would have been reduced by the same amount.

In terms of trade tax , the term long- term debt is discussed. The issue here is whether loan interest as an operating expense may reduce taxable profit. This only applies to liabilities in current business transactions, insofar as they are repaid within a customary business period. According to the established jurisprudence of the Federal Fiscal Court , a debt generally serves to strengthen working capital, and not just temporarily, if its equivalent value strengthens working capital for more than a year. On the other hand, despite a term of more than one year, debts that are economically related to ongoing business transactions and are repaid in the period customary for the type of business transaction in question do not serve to permanently strengthen working capital . These are, in particular, loans that a company takes out to finance the acquisition or production costs of a certain current asset and that are to be repaid from the proceeds obtained from the sale of this asset. These principles also apply to current account debts . According to this, current account debts are generally current debts, unless it must be concluded from the business relationship of the parties involved that, despite the external form of current account transactions, a certain minimum credit should be permanently devoted to the company.

National debt

Under state law debt is defined as the total of all legal norms that regulate the public debt policy. Government debts are all liabilities of a government to non-government creditors. This also includes the implicit national debt, which is known as shadow debt . According to Article 114.1 of the Basic Law, the Federal Minister of Finance has to bill the Bundestag and Bundesrat for all income and expenditures as well as for the assets and debts of the Federation in the course of the next financial year. The federal government accounts for 63% of the total public debt (2014), the federal states 30% and the municipalities 7%. The share of government bonds in federal debt is 94%, in federal states bonds make up 61% of debt, while in municipalities loans dominate with 65% and cash loans (both municipal loans ) with 34% . The main creditors are the credit institutions (federal government 55%, federal states 56%, municipalities 99%). There are only five debt-free countries in the world: Macau (Chinese gambling oasis), British Virgin Islands (domicile for mailbox companies ), Brunei (oil sultanate), Liechtenstein ( tax haven ) and Palau .

Local debt issues

Until the budget reform on January 1, 1974, there was a strict division of debts in municipal budgets into "profitable" and "unprofitable". The “profitable” ones included those communal debts that were fully or predominantly covered by (special) income (such as special contributions, fees or grants), while the “unprofitable” ones were covered by general budget funds. This distinction no longer applies with the introduction of the total coverage principle in the asset budget according to Section 16 (1) No. 2 KommHaushVO. In order to retain the earlier informative value, borrowings for investment measures with predominantly financing through certain income are to be shown separately from the other debts through a separate grouping number. Since in addition to the total debt level, the level of the "profitable" debt must also be stated, the previous regulation remains in effect. This improves the informative value of a municipal debt ratio, in which the total debts are compared with the earmarked income.

In France , the debt burden of all local authorities is relatively low, as in 2010 only 7.5% of total income was borrowed (direct and indirect taxes dominated with 50.6%, followed by government allocations with 30.0%). At the same time, the local government debt was only 8.3% of GDP, 8.2% in Italy and 4.8% in the United Kingdom ; in Germany they were 30.3% in 2010.

The debts of an economy vis-à-vis other countries are called external debts . Various EU member states have introduced a national debt brake . It is intended to enable the borrowing to be limited by ensuring that the latter must not exceed a certain ratio to the gross domestic product .


The international accounting standards deal extensively with the accounting of debts. The International Financial Reporting Standards refer to debt as english other liabilities . The International Accounting Standard 39 (IAS 39) bases its legal definition of financial debts ("financial liabilities") on the contractual obligation to repay the capital provided by repayment or repurchase to an external contractual partner, whereby a company does not withdraw itself by unconditional own decision can. In IAS 32.16 there is a negative selection, according to which such financial instruments cannot be equity instruments if they are linked to a repayment obligation. According to IAS 39.43, debts are to be valued at fair value upon acquisition.


See also

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Gerhard Reiter, Critical Life Events and Debt Careers of Consumers , 1991, p. 21
  2. ^ Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Dictionary , Volume 15, 1893 ff., Col. 1870, voucher text word Schuld (1293)
  3. Ulrike Köbler, Werden, Wandel und Wesen des German private law vocabulary , 2010, p. 169 f.
  4. Gerhard Köbler , Etymological Legal Dictionary , 1995, p. 360 f.
  5. Lorenz Diefenbach , Glossarium Latino-Germanicum , 1857, p. 166
  6. Immanuel Kant, Attempt to introduce the concept of negative quantities into world wisdom , 1763, p. 78
  7. ^ Friedrich Carl von Savigny, System of Today's Roman Law , 1840, p. 376
  8. ^ Friedrich Carl von Savigny, System of Today's Roman Law , 1840, p. 376
  9. Hans-Heinrich Streit, contributions to the doctrine of asset takeover according to § 419 BGB , 1932, p. 13
  10. ^ BGH judgment of February 17, 2011, Az .: III ZR 35/10
  11. ^ BGH judgment of October 6, 2010, Az .: XII ZR 10/09
  12. ^ BFH judgment of September 19, 2002, XR 68/00, BFH / NV 2003, p. 891
  13. BFH judgment of December 16, 2009, IV R 48/07, BFHE 228, 408
  14. BFH judgment of August 3, 1993, VIII R 40/92, BFHE 174, 174, BStBl. II 1994, p. 664
  15. BFH judgment of July 3, 1997, IV R 2/97, BFHE 184, 104, BStBl. II 1997, p. 742
  16. Helaba, Country Focus: French Regional Authorities , October 5, 2012, p. 6
  17. ^ Norbert Krawitz, Accounting according to international principles , ZfB-Special Issue 6/2006, p. 86